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This week’s podcast is with Erika DeBenedictis, a new principal investigator who is founding her lab at the Crick Institute in London. Her lab will focus around the broad field of bioautomation, but before talking about any of that, we delve into her past. Erika is just another one in a long string of podcast guests who has had an unconventional entry into the field of molecular programming! She started her scientific career interested in space science, telling us that her interest was kindled as a child because of the accessibility of this field to anyone. This led her to work at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Afterwards she talks about her time as a PhD student in Kevin Esvelt’s lab working on massively parallelised directed evolution, harnessing the power of robotics in order to develop her technique known as PRANCE. She talks about the use of these techniques in expanding the genetic code, and the main hurdles in doing so.
We then move on to her post-doc at David Baker’s lab in Washington, where she worked on using machine learning for de novo protein engineering. At the same time we talk about the place of robots in modern laboratories, whether they will replace all hand pipettes (and wet lab scientists!), and the feasibility of cloud laboratories in making science more accessible.
Finally we move on to the start of Erika’s new lab at the Crick Institute, her vision for what she wants to do, and ultimately the bioautomation challenge, which is a programme spearheaded by her to get bioautomation equipment into more laboratories to accelerate research.
Erika began her science career as a computational physicist and astronomer and worked on space mission design at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She received a BS in Computer science from Caltech in 2014. She then worked at Dropbox as a software engineer and at D. E. Shaw Research on computational biophysics.
She received a PhD in Biological Engineering from MIT in 2020, working with Kevin Esvelt. Erika’s research focused on developing techniques for robotics-accelerated evolution (PRANCE) and applying these techniques to quadruplet codon genetic code expansion and origin of life research in E. coli. Her postdoc in David Baker’s lab at the Institute for Protein Design at the University of Washington focused on using machine learning techniques to systematically engineer de novo proteins.
In 2022, she launched the Bioautomation Challenge, a program designed to make experimental life science more reproducible, scalable and sharable by giving researchers access to programmable experiments.
She now leads the Biodesign Laboratory at the Francis Crick Institute in London, UK.